10 Steps to Mastering Your Camera

by Jeff McLain


Use Sunny 16 to guesstimate a proper exposure.

One of the most useful tricks in guesstimating an exposure is the Sunny F-16 Rule. Step outside on a bright sunny day around noon and your exposure can be set with this simple hack: Match your shutter speed to the ISO. So if your ISO is 100, then your closest shutter speed would be set at 1/125th. And if your ISO is 200, set it to 1/250th, and so on. Then, set your aperture to F16 and you are there! Sometimes if it's a little bit cloudy, you may have to open up to F11, but the Sunny F-16 Rule is a great hack for dialing in an exposure and being able to evaluate ambient light with your eyes.


Look for "Medium Gray" tones in your scene.

In a given scene, there are a variety of brightness values. The area near the sun will be brightest, whereas a grassy field will sit near the middle and the shadows falling off of some rocks in the field will dip into the darkest areas of brightness. Our cameras are calibrated to a value of 18% gray, a medium gray tone. You can use the "spot" meter on your camera to meter only one small portion of the scene. Center out your meter on the medium gray tones to ensure accurate exposure for the whole scene. Often green grass is very close to medium gray, so you could walk over to it and take your meter reading of it and then recompose for your entire scene with that exposure setting and shoot.

Use your Histogram!

The histogram is a powerful visual aid built into the camera. Most DSLR cameras today offer this option under "Info" when you playback your image. You can view the histogram too. The histogram is a graph that looks like a mountain range. On the left of the X-axis of this graph is the Black information and on the far right of the X-axis of this graph is all the White information, with medium gray sitting right in the middle. If you photograph a green field with blue sky and get a perfect exposure, your mountain range will sit mostly right over the middle. If you photograph a snowy landscape, your mountain range will be positioned off to the right of this graph, and if you photograph a very shadowy and dark scene, your histogram will be positioned off to the left. What we want to avoid with the histogram is for the mountain range to 'clip' - which means that it falls off the graph to the left or right. Judging with your eyes, if you photograph a portrait of a woman wearing white in a white room, the histogram will mostly be off to the right. But, if it falls off the graph to the right, then there are parts of the white room and dress that are TOO bright which means your exposure is too bright. If the histogram is dead-center, then the image is under-exposed because we'd expect a scene with lots of white to have a histogram that sits over to the right. Vice versa for black clothing/dark scenes.


ALWAYS shoot in Raw file format.

At RMSP, we hold fast to shooting in Raw. A Raw file is like the cookie batter. A JPEG is a compressed file that is smaller and is more like the cookie. If you have cookie batter, you can add other ingredients to make it any kind of cookie you want. If you only have the cookie, there's no going back. It's already baked! Shooting in Raw gives us a file that is the most malleable in terms of making adjustments with our computer. We use either Adobe Lightroom or Phase One Capture One software to make adjustments to our Raw files to get the very best from our photographs. Shoot in Raw and begin to learn Lightroom or Capture One Pro.


When in doubt, shoot in Aperture Priority Mode.

If you are brand new to manual exposure with a camera, the best place to start is with the Aperture Priority setting. This allows you to control what aspects of your photo are in-focus and what are not. An aperture of f2.8 or f4 is considered "wide open" and will give you a photo where the object you are focused on is sharp, but the items in front of it and behind it will be out-of-focus. An aperture of f16 or f22 is considered "closed down" and will give you the most Depth of Field. This means that if you focus into your scene, you'll be able to get much more of it from foreground to infinity in focus. The apertures in between are variations on the theme, moreover, so you can experiment with f5.6 and f8 to get different results. In Aperture Priority Mode (A, Av), the shutter speed will be chosen for you.

Set your White Balance.

To begin mastering the color of your images, stay away from AWB and use the white balance presets or the K setting. The White Balance Presets are little icons (a Sun, a Cloud, a Fluorescent Tube, a Lightbulb) and will help you get closer color rendering in your images. If you are in a home at night that is lit by mostly incandescent light bulbs, set the white balance preset to the little lightbulb (which is appx 3300┬░Kelvin on the K setting). If you are in a room of older fluorescent lighting, use the fluorescent tube icon to more-closely match that color. If you are outside on a bright sunny day, use the Sun icon. If you are outside on a cloudy day, use the Cloud icon. If you want to use the K settings, that will give you the most control. Below is a chart of approximate color temperature values to match your lighting situation to the appropriate color temperature:

  • ~3300k - incandescent bulbs
  • ~5500k - cloudless daylight at noon
  • ~6000k - strobe light / flash / cloudy day outside

For even more control, shoot in Raw so that you can process the files with Lightroom or Capture One Pro and you will have complete control of the color of your file!

Manage the Noise with ISO.

Keep a close eye on your ISO! The lower the number, the higher the image quality of your photograph, but the bigger the chance you will have to use slower shutter speeds because the sensor will be less sensitive to light. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the sensor is to light. This will allow you to use faster shutter speeds, but will also begin introducing more digital noise (looks like grain) into your file. ISO 400 doesn't cause as much noise, but it won't be as sensitive to light as ISO 1600 or 3200. An ISO of 800 is one more F-stop of light than ISO 400, but will be noisier than ISO 400. So choose wisely and given your particular lighting situation.

Use Auto Power Off.

One thing that is a bummer is when your battery dies when you are out on a shoot. You can set your camera's Auto Power Off function to 1 minute and the camera will go to sleep after a minute of inactivity. It will wake back up when you depress the shutter release halfway. This is a great way to keep your camera on so that you can quickly grab it and get a shot, and it prevents the problem of missing the shot due to your camera being off. Simply let it fall asleep. It will save your battery life! Another great trick is to use a silver Sharpie pen and write the month and year on the battery, so that after a couple years if you notice that particular battery is not performing well, you'll know why.

Switch to Motor Drive for fast-moving moments.

Your camera may have the ability to shoot multiple frames-per-second. This is usually called Continuous Shooting Mode. It allows you to hold the shutter button down once and the camera will fire off many shots in succession. This is great for shooting action shots of your kid kicking the soccer ball into the goal, or your friend's sweet snowboarding jump, and other similar moments of action. Just be aware that with this feature, you need fast SD or CF cards - the higher the MB/s (megabyte per second) write speed, the faster the camera can write the information to the card. Pay the bit extra for a faster card so that you can shoot Continuous Mode shots without waiting for the camera to write them to the card (called "Buffering").


Format your memory cards.

A very important practice is to format your memory cards after each use. Rather than making space on your card by deleting files, use a card reader to download all the images to your computer hard drive and then when you know you have them safely off the camera (and preferably in two backup locations as well), "format" the card. Formatting a memory card on the camera you'll next use it with is an important step that ensures the card will be completely empty for the next shoot - and that it will communicate properly with that camera and no other device. It's a good practice to get in the habit of to ensure that you get your images off the card and onto your computer so that you can start fresh for each new shoot.




Download our Basic Exposure Guide

This handy exposure guide will help you understand the basics of f-stops, shutter speeds and ISO. You'll learn how to get perfect exposures every time - even in tricky lighting situations!

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Is a career as a professional photography the right fit for you? Find out here!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff McLain

Jeff McLain is a photographer, videographer, and digital retoucher. After his photography education, Jeff got his start as a freelance photo assistant in San Francisco working on editorial, catalog and advertising shoots. His skills in Photoshop and computing allowed him to help photographers bridge the gap between the film days and all-digital workflows, and he stood at the forefront of the advent of the career of the "Digital Technician."

Jeff soon moved into shooting, and then moved laterally to video capture. His background as a multi-instrumental musician has also benefited his understanding of sound design and audio capture, which can be a technically challenging aspect of film-making.

He worked for many years as a digital technician for Pier 1 Imports, Pottery Barn, Logitech, and Crate & Barrel. As a photographer, he has shot for Williams Sonoma, Mountain Living Magazine, Keen Shoes, Mountain Hardwear, Red Envelope, Robert Mondavi Wines, Mountain Living Magazine, and Cottage Journal Magazine... among others.

He has been a freelancer for over 18 years and takes a 'real-world' approach to his perspective of the photographic industry and the skills needed in today's market. Locally, he and his wife operate a videography business.

Jeff is a 2001 graduate of Hallmark Institute of Photography and holds a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Montana. When not working on still or video projects, Jeff spends time with his wife, son, dog and cat in Missoula, Montana. He plays bluegrass dobro, banjo, guitar and harmonica to unwind.

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